Friday, February 27, 2015

Jesus was Transfigured (Matthew 17:1-13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Rev. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, NYC writes:

“One day I came home late from work.  It was a nice day outside and I noticed that the door to our apartment's balcony was open. Just as I was taking off my coat, I heard a smashing noise coming from the balcony.  In another couple of seconds I heard another one. I hurried out on to the balcony and to my surprise saw my wife sitting on the floor. She had a hammer and next to her was a stack of our wedding china. On the ground were the shards of two smashed saucers.

"What are you doing?" I asked.  She looked up and said, "You aren't listening to me. You don't see how serious this is.  If you keep working these hours you are going to destroy this family.  Your children and I need you. This is what you are doing." And she brought the hammer down on the third saucer.

I sat down trembling. I thought she had snapped. "I'm listening. I'm listening."   She smiled and said: “Good, now I have your attention and we proceeded to have an honest conversation that we should have had a long time ago.”

So do most people need to improve their listening skills?  Do you?   Talking, verbal communication, is obviously essential.  We use verbal communication in everyday conversations, in our professions, in education, in crying out for help.

Talking is a basic form of human interaction.  We spend 1/5th of our lives talking.  We engage in an average of 30 conversations per day.  We speak some 20,000 to 30,000 words per day.   The Urban dictionary even has a definition of a talking head:  “A ‘Talking Head’ is someone who never stops talking. They will corner you by your car after a long day’s work to tell you gossip about the neighbors or to ask you about the details of your day, so they can distort it and spread it throughout the neighborhood.”   

In this light, we turn to our morning story about a unique event in the life of Jesus’ disciples.  It is the indescribable point in time of Jesus’ transfiguration.  Try to visualize this scene.  Jesus is on a high mountain with his three closest disciples, Peter, James and John.  Suddenly, Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white, his face shines like the sun and His presence is transfigured before them.  He undergoes a complete metamorphosis, an extraordinary phenomenon which none of the disciples had ever witnessed before.

And if that isn't enough, two Jewish superstars, Moses and Elijah appear.  For us it would be like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln or Katy Perry and Justin Bieber and they are talking with Jesus.  The significance of these Jewish figures is monumental.  Moses represents the tradition of Jewish law and Elijah represents the prophetic tradition.   Peter was totally enamored with this moment and says to Jesus: “Lord, it is good for us to be here, if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

And while Peter is still speaking, a bright cloud overshadows them and from the cloud the voice of God speaks.    Jesus' presence is transformed, long dead Jewish heroes mysteriously appear before him and Peter keeps talking and rattling on about building shelters.  He doesn't stop to take it all in, to appreciate what was happening, to perceive, to comprehend, to listen, to experience this special spiritual moment.   Are we sometimes like Peter?   We are so busy talking that we don't stop to listen, to look around, to be aware of what is happening around us, to learn from, to be moved by and inspired by what is going on? 

And then comes a word from on high:  God says, “This is my Son, whom I love.  With him, I am well pleased.  Listen to him.”  God was revealing to the disciples Jesus’ true identity.  God was saying this is no ordinary rabbi, this is no ordinary prophet, Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus is Lord, pay attention, listen to him.  The presence of Moses and Elijah confirmed Jesus’ identity as the fulfillment of all God was doing and saying in the past in the law and the prophets of Israel

This mystifying story first conveys to us the critical importance of listening.  Communication is more than talking.  Listening requires energy, commitment and effort.   Comments like: “I don’t think you heard what I said “or “That's not what I said” or “You misunderstood me” or “Excuse me, please let me finish” to someone who constantly interrupts you, are all too common in everyday conversations.   Attentive listening is a gift to someone your speaking with.  Attentive listening is giving a person your full and undivided attention.  

Listening needs more than politeness, it requires interest and concentration and curiosity.  If you aren’t interested in the other person or in what this person is saying, you won’t be an effective listener.   Proverbs says, "He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame” and "Let the wise men listen and add to their learning.”   The book of James says, "Be quick to listen and slow to speak."  

A grandmother writes:  “One day my three-year-old granddaughter, Beverly, was playing with her toys.  Her mother, who was folding laundry across the room, noticed Beverly's shirt was dirty and needed to be changed. After calling her name two times with no response, her mother gave her the full three-name call: "Beverly Elizabeth Provost, did you hear me?" Beverly answered, "Yes, Mama. My ears did, but my legs didn't."

Listening can mean the difference between life and death.  In the fall of 2003 Nancy and I heard from friends and family about a string of wildfires in San Diego.  A police officer was quoted as saying: "We're begging people to leave, and they don't take us seriously. They want to pack some clothes, or fight it in the backyard with a garden hose. They don't seem to understand that this is unlike any fire we've seen.”  A man frantically warned his neighbors, only to have some disregard him.  He told of those who tried to save their televisions and computers before escaping. "They looked like they were packing for a trip. The ones who listened to me and left the area lived. The ones who didn’t died."

Listening also reveals one’s values.  Listening shows respect, it affirms the worth of people, it builds strong relationships, it accepts feedback and criticism, it allows one to learn, it shows humility, it generates ideas, and it builds loyalty. 

It’s been said: “Many people do not listen with an intent to understand, they listen with an intent to reply.”  People express a political opinion we disagree with and we immediately begin organizing our arguments for our retort.  People share a problem they are having and we are quick to tell them about a similar or more serious problem of our own.  Listening requires understanding and empathy and patience. 

Studies continually point out a steady decline in parent-child communication.  Parents complain that their children don't listen to them and children complain that their parents don't listen.  A key reason in the past 50 years has to do with the amount of time children and parents spend talking to each other.  Technology in the form of television, cell phones and video games has greatly decreased the time parents and children engage in meaningful conversation.

The story of the transfiguration further says that God speaks to us and wants us to listen.  “This is my Son, whom I dearly love, listen to Him.”    What is one way to describe a Christian?  A Christian is one who listens to the Lord.

One reason we don't listen is that we already have our minds made up.  We don't seriously seek God's will and word.  We don't pray to try to discern God's will before a decision that is facing us.  In the movie The Man with Two Brains, Steve Martin plays a brain surgeon.  He has fallen in love with a conniving temptress.  Standing before the portrait of his late wife, Martin asks for guidance: ”Just show me a sign. Should I marry her or not?”  Suddenly a cold wind begins to blow, sending an icy chill throughout the room, and a voice wails – Noo, nooo, don't do it.  The wall splits in two and the portrait spins errily on the wall saying Nooo, while the furnishings in the room crash around him.  Then everything is still and Martin says:  “Well, since you won't show me a sign, I guess it's okay to marry her.”

Recall the experiences of people in the Bible.  Like the apostle Paul who three times appealed to the Lord about an ailment, a thorn in the flesh and the Lord said: My grace is sufficient for you.”  Paul listened to the Lord.  Or the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus forgave.  He said to her: “Go and sin no more.”  This woman listened to the Lord.  Think of the prophet Elijah.  He had escaped to the wilderness and was hiding from the Jerusalem authorities in a cave.   The lord was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.  But the Lord spoke in the silence.  Elijah listened to the Lord. 

I still clearly remember some years ago, when in the middle of the night, I awoke, half asleep and half awake, my stomach in knots about a problem I was worried about that was going on in the church.  Can you believe that, a minister waking up anxious about some problem in the church?  And suddenly I heard clearly and distinctly these words: “Be Not Anxious.”  At first, I was stunned.  Then I realized something.  The anxiety in the pit of my stomach was gone.  I was at peace.  God had spoken.  And thank God I had listened.

Finally, we are to listen because listening is a way of obeying Jesus’ Lordship over our lives.    Jan, a staffer with Athletes in Action, after attending a conference on evangelism, was relaxing in the hotel whirlpool. Two girls joined her in the tub. One of them, named Brittany, began telling her friend about an upcoming Wiccan gathering she was planning to attend. 

Jan says: “Normally I would have tried to argue with the girl about Jesus, but I decided to listen instead. I said something like: "Wow, you sound excited about this!"   This was all the encouragement she needed to launch into a five-minute explanation of why she was so attracted to neo-pagan rituals. The bottom line was that she'd had a traumatic time in high school and the Wiccas accepted her. She said, "I've gone through such pain just trying to make it through high school.” 

I said: "I’ll bet you would like to be free from all the pain you've gone through and what came next completely floored me. With tears streaming down, she said, "Sometimes I wish I could be born all over again. I'd really like to start over from scratch." After a pause, I asked if she would really like to be born again and then shared with her the gospel of God’s love in Jesus.”

Yes, we need to listen to God and to one another because the Lord speaks to us and through us.  Jesus was transfigured.  Hallelujah. Amen!

Friday, February 13, 2015

We Have Known and Believe God's Love (I John 4:7-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

This coming Saturday is Valentine's Day.  I like the commercial for Valentine’s Day where a self-conscious, shy little boy, knocks on the front door of a house.  A cute little girl opens the door and he presents her with a valentine.  She smiles and invites him into her house.  He walks in and is immediately greeted by a group of little boys who wave to him.
Valentine's Day is about love.  How do you define love?  It’s used in a variety of contexts.  We see bumper stickers which say: “I heart my dog,” and there is a picture of a poodle?”   People say: “I love what your wearing,” “I love pizza,” “I love to read,” “I love your house,” “I love sushi,” “I love America,” “I love Hawaii,” “I love my wife,” “I love my husband,” “I love my children,” “I love my grandchildren,” “I love ice cream sundaes.”  Now that goes without saying.

Love's connection with Valentine’s Day has ennobling beginnings.  The day was established by a Catholic Pope in 500 A.D.  Valentine was a priest in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II.  He was young, handsome, wealthy, and passionately in love with his fiancĂ©.  As they were eagerly awaiting their wedding day, the Roman emperor declared that all Christians were guilty of treason and to escape punishment, they had to worship the Roman Emperor and profess "Caesar is Lord."   Valentine was a Christian who believed that Jesus alone was Lord.   He refused.   He was arrested, tried, and condemned to death.

While awaiting execution, Valentine wrote love letters to his fiancĂ©—romantic letters, assuring her of his never-ending love.  On February 14, 259 A.D. he was martyred for his faith.  The tradition of Valentine’s Day is rooted in a testimony to Christian faith and love.  Valentine’s legacy lives on whenever people express their love to people on this day.

But classic Greek literature also warns us about love; for love can become marred, distorted, corrupted, such as in the story of Narcissus in Greek Mythology.  Narcissus was a hunter, renowned far and wide, for his handsome appearance.   He was proud and vain about his comeliness and despised everyone around him.   The spirit of hubris, Nemesis, lured Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely his reflection.   He was so enraptured that he couldn’t pull himself away from the pool and eventually died gazing at his reflection.  

Narcissism is a corrupt form of love.  One is totally self-absorbed.  There is no room for others.  One feels no sympathy or empathy for others.  You only love yourself.

My point is that we need an authoritative guide to truly understand the nature of love, and that truth is found in the Bible.  Without the scriptures, the definition of love is totally capricious and arbitrary.  It is purely subjective.  It's a matter of personal opinion and your opinion is no better or worse than my opinion.  And that's a problem.  Why?  Because some men or women think controlling someone, dominating them, exerting power over them, making them dependent upon them, even abusing them is love.   But they are wrong. 

In English we have only one word, love.  In the Greek language of the New Testament, we find different words for love.   Philos means brotherly or sisterly love.    It denotes a type of love which exists between family members or between friends.  Like parents raising their children, or siblings caring for one another or friends helping each other.  Feelings play a large role in this kind of love.

A second word is Eros which refers to erotic love, sensual desire, romantic love.   As a pastor, I see examples of romantic love in talking with young couples preparing for their wedding.  But I have also witnessed it with older couples, who have been married 50 years, who ask me to officiate at a special service to reaffirm their wedding vows.  Emotions are an integral part of this form of love.

The third word for love, found more than any other in scripture, is Agape.   Agape love is not dependent on emotions or feelings.   It doesn’t mean agape love always lacks feeling, that its devoid of love, not at all.  Agape love may also involve feelings.  The key here is that agape love is not dependent upon emotions, its not driven by emotions, it doesn't rely upon feelings to motivate one to love another.

Agape love refers to sacrificial love, self-less love, unconditional love, in spite of love, no strings attached love, the love we express with no thought of credit or recognition or accolades.   Agape love is not quid pro quo love.   

I John uses the word agape when it says: “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  

Agape love opens up the heart of God.  In this love we actually see into God's heart.  It is loving the way God loves.  It is loving someone, whether or not you like them. You can love someone and not like them, or love them and like them.  But as humans, we can also like someone, like them a lot, but not love them.   God isn’t interested in whether we like or dislike someone.  Not at all.  God is interested in whether we love someone.  Jesus commands us to take the higher road.   

Jesus practiced agape love in his ministry.  Agape love is the ability to love a stranger as you would a friend.  Jesus healed strangers, like the man with the withered hand, he fed the hungry whom he didn't know, he taught strangers about the kingdom of God, like the crowds in the sermon on the mount. 

No, the Bible isn’t sentimental or romantic when it comes to talking about agape love.  It clearly places the accent on actions and behavior, rather than emotions.   I John 3:18 says:  “Let us love, not with words or tongue, but with actions and truth.”   Agape love is not just talking about doing something, its not about words alone, but doing something.  Agape love does involve words when it comes to speaking the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable or risky to do so.  Agape love is sometimes Tough love, making tough decisions about someone, not following your heart, but following your head.  It's not easy to do, but sometimes its the right and necessary thing to do.

Our culture puts the emphasis on feelings.  We can say this refers to Eros love.   We hear: “Let your feelings guide you, follow your heart.”  Is that bad or wrong? No. Feelings are fine to a point.  It's important to trust our gut or intuition.  The problem is that feelings are fickle.  They vacillate; you can feel one way at one moment and the opposite way at the next moment.  They run hot and cold.  Our feelings surprise us, sometimes they shock us.  Feelings are spontaneous, unpredictable, impulsive, spur-of-the-moment, uncontrollable, right?  

C.S. Lewis in his classic book Mere Christianity says: “Love, in the Christian sense, does not mean an emotion.  It is a state not of feelings but of the will.  Christian love for our neighbors is quite a different thing from liking or affection.  We like or are fond of some people and not of others.  This natural liking or fondness is neither a sin nor a virtue.  It is just a fact.  Feelings are not what God principally cares about.  If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment to love God and others.”  

Agape love is an act of the will, a decision to take action, a choice to do something based upon  an understanding of and an accountability to God’s will.   It says – “I will honor my commitment to you regardless of how I feel.”  “I will help you even though I don’t know you.”  “I will do the very best that I can for you, even though I don’t feel like it.”  

I John says: “Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love.”   Do you agree with that?  To cast an indifferent eye toward the plight of your neighbor, to not be moved by the suffering of others, to look with complacency at the needs of people around you and do nothing, is an indication that one does not know God or worship God or honor God.

Conversely, I John says:  “If we love others, this shows that God lives in us and his love grows in us.”  This passage teaches that our ability to love is grounded in our knowledge and experience of God’s love for us.  By the power of the Holy Spirit within us, by our knowing that God loves us, we are moved to love others in response to God's love.  We are able to love with commitment and sacrifice and compassion and enthusiasm, because we believe God's love is constant, steadfast, and unbreakable and because we have known and believe in God's love.    

Agape love reveals one's character and conduct.    Agape love is doing the right thing, the good thing, the generous thing, the necessary thing.   For agape love is rooted in scripture, in values, in principle, in truth, in faith, faith in God and our desire to obey and please God.   We have the power to love others, because we know in our heart of hearts, that God deeply and passionately loves us and commands us to love others.   And out of our gratitude to God for his saving love and his blessings we are free to love in obedience to His will.    

If you were not loved as a child growing up in your family, you will have a more difficult time expressing love to others, later in life.  This is true.  But by God's grace, we all can learn to love, no matter what our family life was like.  Through faith in God and the power of God at work in our hearts and minds, the capacity to love can be released in you.  I John 4:19 says:  “We love, because God first loved us.”    Agape love is not blind, its eyes are wide open, it is not fickle, but tenacious; it is not weak, but strong.  The greatest of God’s gifts to us, is the ability to love.  I truly believe at the end of the day, Christ will say: “I gave you your life, how did you use it to love others?”

I think of Padre Outfielder Will Venable, who volunteers as a tutor with students at Monarch School, a school for homeless young people here in San Diego.  I think of the story of the brave little 7 year old girl, who survived a plane crash in Kentucky in early January that took the lives of her family.  She trudged through dense woods in frigid temperatures for more than a mile. Shaking and upset, she found herself on the doorstep of Larry Wilkins's home.  Larry took her in, called 911 and saved her life. 

Eli Wiesel is a Romania-born American novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor said:  “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.”  I close with a quote by Christian author Francis Schaeffer: “If we do not show love to one another, the world has a right to question whether Christianity is true.”   Yes, God demonstrated his love for us, He sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Let Christ's love inspire you to love others.  Amen!

Friday, February 6, 2015

They Devoted Themselves (Acts 2:37-47) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I remember a conversation some years ago with this guy about the church.  He was being fairly critical.  I asked him if he had gone to church very often.  He said “no.”  I invited him to come and check it out.  He said:  “Sorry pastor, but I'm not a joiner, I don't really need to be around people.”

Do you need community and friendships?  Research studies show just how significant they are.  A 2006 study of 3,000 women with breast cancer found that those with a large network of friends were four times more likely to survive, than women with limited social connections.  A study involving almost 3,000 Americans found that people with close friendships are far less likely to die young.

But despite this irrefutable scientific evidence, our life-style as Americans is becoming more solitary. Since the late 1980s, according to surveys in the United States, more people are saying that they are feeling isolated and lonely.  Why is this?  Perhaps because people are opting for more personal freedom, independence and time for themselves.   Perhaps we don't trust one another the way we used to.  We are wary, cautious, guarded about establishing friendships.  Perhaps people are more disinclined toward making commitments, they are “commitment adverse,” about investing all that's required in establishing new friendships or in maintaining current relationships.  What do you think?  We know this fact of life.  If you don't invest energy and time and involvement, then community, friendships, relationships will gradually fade and die. 

A fundamental theme that runs through all of scripture is community.  The Old Testament speaks about the community of Israel and the New Testament speaks about the church or the Christian community.  There are different dimensions of the church: we are a worshiping community, an evangelical community, a ministering community, a learning community and a fellowship. 

I want to focus our thinking upon the church as a Christian fellowship.  The biblical word in Greek is Koinonia, which translated means - “Christians sharing together in and with Christ.”  It is the experience of sharing together in Christ and his benefits.  For example in I John we read: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” 

Koinonia or Christian fellowship is sharing together as partners, as spiritual brothers and sisters or brothers and sisters in faith in Christ's benefits: in Christ's love, in unity and mutual support, in the body and blood of Christ in the Lord's Supper, in the Holy Spirit, in His grace and forgiveness and power, in His promises, in his blessings, in his sufferings, and in his future glory.  By God’s grace, and the power His Word and Holy Spirit, we are and are becoming a fellowship in Christ.

Recall our lesson from the book of Acts.  The first Christians in Jerusalem shared their life together in and with Christ.  They held all things in common.  They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to one another as needs arose. Imagine that.   This practice of the church in Jerusalem, of holding things in common, lasted about a generation.  Believers spent time together – devoting themselves to the apostles teaching, enjoying a common fellowship, worshipping in the temple, sharing meals in their homes, praying together, supporting one another, praising God and enjoying the good will of all the people.   The early Christians experienced encouragement, strength, caring, and faith in their life together.  

How are we doing as a Christian community?  How are we doing as a fellowship sharing in and with Christ?  Do you feel God's love abides in our life together?  Someone might be thinking:  “Well pastor, we aren't perfect.” I agree. Only Jesus was perfect. Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.  The church is made up of saved and forgiven sinners called together and growing together in Christ.   By God's grace, we must constantly strive to reach Christ's ideal of a Christian fellowship, knowing full well that we will never reach it to a state of perfection.

I think of Christian community in terms of an analogy from nature, like the flying patterns of Canadian geese.  A group of engineers wondered why Canadian geese always fly in a “V” formation, so they did a study on the subject.  They discovered that the flapping of each goose’s wings provided an upward lift for the goose that followed.  When all the geese were flying in perfect formation, the whole flock had a 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.  Each bird was dependent on the others to reach its destination.  Here is synergy at work.  The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.  Is that an apt metaphor for the church?

Koininia is further about harmony, aiming always for unity in our life, worship and mission.  In Ephesians we read: “Making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  Does this mean we are always going to agree with one another? Does it mean we are always going to like each other?  I don't think so.   It means learning to agree to disagree, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Jesus never commanded - “Like each other.”  He did say - “Love one another.”

Koinonia means we learn to respect one another and trust one another, even when we disagree and still cooperate in building up our community.  It means to learn to accept and embrace different personalities.  Do we have different personalities here at PBPC?   I’ve said to myself “Alan, you don't always have to be right, you don't always have to get your way, so get over it.”  “I've had to say it more than once.”  Being open to and truly listening to the views and ideas and opinions of others, while articulating your own views, is true koinonia.

Koinonia is at times a joy and delight isn’t it?  There are memorable times in which we experience joys like hearing inspiring music in worship or sharing in a rewarding time in ministry.   But alas, there are also difficult times, frustrating times, disappointing times.  This was so in the early church as well as we read in the New Testament.

In Christian fellowship people feel like they belong.  There is a spirit of acceptance and inclusiveness.  New people are made to feel genuinely welcomed.  There is an open and warm climate - not a cliquish, aloof and closed and cold environment.  New people feel valued and are invited to participate and get involved.  People reach out to newcomers.  

There is a spirit of hospitality in koinonia.  People feel affirmed, appreciated and recognized.  They feel like they count, that they matter.  Barriers and walls can be broken down so that strangers can become friends in Christ.  In the letter of Ephesians we read: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.”    Not a bad picture of Koininia.

Koinonia is further characterized by a spirit of joy, energy, enthusiasm and hope.  A spirit of light rather than darkness, grace rather than guilt, freedom rather than control pervades the community.  Christian fellowship promotes hope rather than despair, pessimism and hopelessness.  It is hope founded upon God in Christ, hope for our lives, hope for our church, hope for our world, hope for the future.  The good news is that Jesus Christ is committed to transforming us into a Christian fellowship through the power of His Word and Spirit.  Let’s open our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds for signs of Christ’s Spirit at work within us.   

I close with this quote from the book Life Together about Christian fellowship by the distinguished German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a concentration camp in 1945.  He writes:  “It is true that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual, is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day.  It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian community is a gift of grace, that any day, could be taken from us.  Let us thank God on our knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are called to be in community with other Christian brothers and sisters.”  Amen!